The scene: Dennis the anarcho-syndicalist peasant sits wallowing in the mud. When King Arthur rides up, Dennis mocks and denies his legitimacy and all its symbols. Arthur yells at him to shut up and grabs him by the collar. Dennis is triumphant: “Now we see the violence inherent in the system!”
This being Monty Python, the audience is meant to find both figures absurd. Arthur is a thin-skinned bully, Dennis a self-righteous tool. But the moral principle Dennis invokes is entirely serious. All nonviolent resistance expects, eventually, to make the other side turn violent and lose its public legitimacy.
The mechanics of a sit-in are so simple a child could use them. You sit down, and you don’t leave until someone makes you. Sometimes it looks like a building takeover, but we mustn’t confuse the two. One is the people shutting something down; the other, the powerful taking their ball and going home. I needed that distinction explained to me, too. It’s subtle but crucial in this connection.
Many lunch counter owners responded to the anti-segregation sit-ins by closing up shop and having sitters-in who refused to leave arrested for trespassing. We saw that pattern repeated here last Thursday. Granted, our administration did its best to disguise the force it applied against the sitters-in. The cops waited until the cameras were gone, and came in plain clothes and unmarked cars. Those very efforts at concealment speak to the administration’s proper shame at the means it will use to protect its power. University spokesman Tom Conroy told WTNH that the protest was free speech. He should be as ashamed at his bosses that they responded with force to nonviolent dissent. That’s what tyrants do.
Moderate sensibilities are often offended by sit-ins. I’ve heard embarrassment at them from both my friends and this editorial page. I’ve shared that embarrassment, too. My first activist experience, my sophomore year, was with the train wreck that was the Yale Coalition for Peace. The people I knew who talked about getting arrested seemed to be seeking trouble for its own sake. What good, I wondered, would it do anyone to block the federal building’s steps? It wouldn’t exactly stop the war. Those sit-in proposals were Dennis talk, petulant and prideful.
There’s a fine line between being childish and being childlike. Someone childish wants his way and hurts somebody if he doesn’t get it. Someone childlike wants what’s right and takes outrageous risks to make it real. Sit-ins constantly walk that line. They can be simply self-expression, or they can express things much better than ourselves. Children, like all people, can treat each other with thoughtlessness and cruelty. Yet if I can believe my Saviour, to know peace and justice we must grow childlike.
During the run-up to the Iraq invasion, many of my more idealistic hawkish friends asked me what alternative to war I would propose to deal with the crying injustice that was Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. As a Christian pacifist, I tended to propose things like mass sit-ins. We could send in unarmed volunteers to advocate democracy, distribute relief materials directly to those Saddam was starving, and take the consequences with courage. There’s actually a Christian group in the U.K., Freedom from Fear, proposing just such a campaign this year for Burma.
Most people I’ve talked to, including Christians, thought these ideas absurd. In a theological sense, I’d agree. Nonviolent direct action always assumes that well-organized but unarmed people can expect to consistently beat armed opponents. That takes a leap of faith, in either human goodness or supernatural back-up. Sit-ins both recognize and expose the crucial, decisive difference in kind between the armed (Yale cops pack heat) and the unarmed.
When you have a sit-in on a college campus, people find it alienating and offensive. It’s too extreme. But suggest it for a dictator, and people think you’re crazy. It’s not nearly enough! The stakes are clearly different, yet I insist that the problem is, at some level, the same. Faced with free speech and peaceable assembly, the powers of this world respond by sending men with guns.
To be sure, there is a sliding scale of wrongs here. Yale’s better off than the segregated South. I doubt Levin would have turned a hose on us at the rally. Far less does he torture and kill dissidents like a Saddam Hussein. He, like Dean Salovey and my own Master Krauss, even states great respect for free speech. Much of the time his actions back his words up. But as we saw again on Thursday, he will gladly maintain his authority by force, even when he knows he shouldn’t.
Nothing draws out that fatal willingness, that violence inherent in the system, like a sit-in, the tactic of a stubborn, glorious child who won’t stop doing the right thing. We may not always like that child. The nonviolent activist’s great Original, who occupied a mean building in His day, had His detractors too. But that child’s actions are only counterproductive if her audience scorns her and so takes sides with the present powers.
Nonviolent activists are all in danger of turning into Dennis. We risk letting our egos turn us ridiculous and irrelevant. But if you’re a moderate, don’t let fear of possible excess harden your heart against all direct actions. If you find yourself embarrassed by them, I urge you to self-examination, and fast. Because if you’re found standing with the royal bullies, the Pythons and I can both promise you: Soon and very soon, your kingdom will fall.
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.